Sparring is a subject that most martial arts agree is essential for improvement. In Counterpoint Tactical System (CTS), sparring is integral to the art. This past weekend (6/22), I began final preparations for my 2nd degree brown belt test this September at the 2013 Iron Mountain Training Camp. As part of the test, I’ll have to spar single stick in long (largo) range. For this belt, I’ve spent over a year learning and training the drills. There are two parts to the sparring aspect of Largo single stick: hand/arm targeting only and all targets. CTS uses padded sticks, lacrosse gloves, and a Doce Pares helmet as protection. I’ve sparred hands only in the past; this type of sparring doesn’t require the head protection. Saturday was the first day that I’ve ever sparred with the head gear on, and I’m glad that I got to do that before the test. Mike Miller of Springfield FMA led the review of my material.
For the first few rounds, Mike and I just did hand/arm targeting only. I loved it, but I was thinking too much. I was nervous. Some people get nervous about getting hit when sparring; others, like me, get nervous about hitting the other person. I have depth perception issues and worried that my targeting and the distance my vision perceives weren’t matching. We went a few rounds and took a water break. It was in the high 80’s – low 90’s outside, and we had lacrosse gloves and elbow pads on. During the water break, I was huffing and puffing. Mike was breathing normally. It worried me. Was my cardio that bad? Mike gave me a few reminders about proper breathing while fighting. He also gave me a few compliments on a few strikes that I’d gotten in on him. I felt a tension in my shoulders release immediately. My control of the strikes and the targeting were matching. My biggest fear – that I wasn’t a safe sparring partner – was put to rest, and we got back to work. During the next few rounds, my breathing got better. My cardio returned. Nerves had been sapping my strength.
If drilling is the academic study portion of the martial arts, sparring is the laboratory. It is where the artist tries new techniques, and it is where the fighter learns about himself/herself. Sparring is the best place to confront our egos. I fight with ego issues, and I think everyone struggles with those issues occasionally. So far, my struggles have been mostly internal. Sparring with Mike forced me to confront that ego. He has more single stick largo experience than I do, and it showed. I connected with a few good shots, but Mike was giving much more than he was getting. I got hit a lot. At times like that, my ego flares up. The responses vary between “I suck” to “I’m better than this.” Those responses are just my pride trying to protect itself. His best strike landed on the pulse of my right hand. It didn’t hurt; instead, it felt like an electrical shock that traveled from my wrist to my fingertips. My grip convulsed momentarily. It was a strange and sort of neat experience. In order to combat it, Mike told me to relax. I had to remind myself that during sparring is the time to make mistakes. Sparring is the time to hone my skills against better opponents.
Another way I tried to check my ego was acknowledging the fact that Mike Miller got a good strike after it happened. Later in the day, he landed a strike right across all four of my fingers on the stick hand. In a real stick fight without protection, that hit would have caused at least one and, probably, multiple compound fractures. In other words, it would have ended the fight. Thanks to the protective equipment – gloves and padded stick, I wasn’t hurt. Rather than act like nothing happened, I backed away and acknowledged it. Rather than pretend a fight ending strike missed, I chose to stop and deal with the fact that I lost that round. On the few good hits that I landed, Mike did the same. It’s respectful to your sparring partner, and the ego cannot argue with the acknowledgement.
Miller will be testing for his first degree black belt, which involves double stick long (largo) range sparring. For the first round, we targeted hands only. After that, I donned the Doce Pares helmet to provide Mike with more targets. This was also my first experience wearing the helmet. What an experience! It was strange. The helmet takes a bit to get used to, and when hit in the right spot, it rings like a bell. It was disorienting for a while. I needed a whole round to get used to it. I wasn’t nearly as effective with the helmet on, which is just a polite, sterile way to say that I got my butt kicked. I had been told that a concern with the helmet is that instead of using the stick to block, certain people take the strike on the helmet to protect their hands. This was not a worry for me. If the strike was on the face mask, the helmet rang like a bell. If the strike landed on the side, I felt pressure against my skull. Since the goal in CTS training is to be as close to reality as possible, I treated each hit to the helmet as if it were a hit to the head. What I learned from this experience is that I have a lot more practicing to do. As I was getting used to the helmet, my footwork was linear forward and backward – straight in and out. Only working one line of footwork made it really easy for Mike to counter me. In the later rounds, I started adding in the angular footwork and side stepping, which is what I have practiced over the last year. With more practice, I’ll get used to sparring with the helmet. The goal is to eventually look as good sparring as the guys in the video below.